Music loses its ‘Genius’

Genre-blending crooner Charles dies

This article was updated at 9:04 p.m.

Ray Charles, who was the first singer to successfully marry gospel with pop and R&B music and who went on to become one of America’s most beloved performers, died Thursday at the age of 73.

Charles died of acute liver disease at his Beverly Hills home at 11:35 a.m., surrounded by family and friends, spokesman Jerry Digney told the Associated Press.

Charles made his last public appearance alongside Clint Eastwood on April 30, when the city of Los Angeles designated the singer’s studios a historic landmark. Charles was the focal point of Eastwood’s docu “Piano Blues.”

Blind from the age of 7, Charles changed the shape of popular music when his raucous tune “I’ve Got a Woman” became a No. 1 hit on the pop and R&B charts in early 1955. That hit record, based on 16-bar gospel chord progressions, marked a radical departure from the blues on the R&B charts and from saccharine-sweet mainstream pop; it paved the way for rock ‘n’ roll acts and other R&B figures hoping to cross over with white audiences.

Besides taking the rhythms and melodies of the church and incorporating them in pop music on songs such as “Hallelujah I Love Her So” and “(Night Time) Is the Right Time,” Charles blazed new paths in a number of genres with his interpretations and compositions.

His 1962 album “Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music,” the pop ballads “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Georgia on My Mind,” and his 1976 perf of “America the Beautiful” stand as American pop hallmarks. “Georgia on My Mind,” written in 1931, became the state’s official song because of Charles’ rendition.

He placed 77 singles in the R&B top 40, 33 of which crossed over to the pop side. He won 12 Grammy Awards, including four in 1960, and best R&B recording three consecutive years (“Hit the Road Jack,” “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Busted”).

With a baritone voice that slid up to an effective falsetto and a piano style rooted in barrelhouse, stride and the blues, Charles invested soul into every style of music he covered and influenced countless singers in the rock era, chief among them Van Morrison, Joe Cocker and Steve Winwood.

Producer Jerry Wexler wrote in his book “Rhythm and the Blues”: “Of all the artists I’ve worked with, only three rate the appellation ‘genius,’ and he was the first.”

Besides making landmark records and being the first self-produced musician, Charles was a business-savvy musician in an era when few were: He saw the value in owning copyrights, master recordings and his own label. He left Atlantic Records, owned by ABC-Paramount, in 1960, specifically to retain more control of his career and later founded his own label, Tangerine.

Charles was a consistent figure on the world’s concert stages for 53 years, canceling shows only late last summer as his health worsened.

A revival of his career as a recording artist was in the works. Concord Records inked Charles late last year, and an album of duets with Elton John, Norah Jones, B.B. King, Diana Krall, Van Morrison and others is scheduled for an Aug. 31 release in conjunction with Starbucks’ Hear Music. Helping to heighten awareness of the singer is Universal’s biopic on Charles, “Ray,” starring Jamie Foxx, scheduled for release Oct. 29.

Bridging genres

In a 1966 Life magazine profile, Thomas Thompson wrote of Charles: “His niche is difficult to define. He is an unparalleled singer of jazz, of gospel, of country and western. He has drawn from each of these musical streams and made a river which he alone can navigate.”

The first child of Aretha and Baily Robinson, Ray Charles Robinson was born into considerable poverty in Albany, Ga., Sept. 23, 1930, and by the end of the year was living in the border town of Greenville, Fla. When Charles was 4, he loved to look at the sun and strike matches to see the flame; at 5, he witnessed his brother’s accidental drowning.

Blind at 7 due to glaucoma, Charles was accepted as a charity student at St. Augustine’s, the Florida state school for the deaf and blind. He learned to read Braille and discovered mathematics and its correlation to music; he also became a skilled basket weaver. He stayed at the school until his mother’s death, setting out to become a professional musician at the age of 15.

His early influences were myriad: Chopin and Sibelius, country and western stars he heard on the Grand Ole Opry, the powerhouse big bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie, jazz greats Art Tatum and Artie Shaw.

After gigging around Florida — and even playing in an integrated country-western band called the Florida Playboys — he asked a friend to get him as far away from the state as possible. He moved to Seattle and developed a solo act similar to the piano-bass-guitar trios of Nat King Cole and Charles Brown. Still using his full name, in 1948, he formed the McSon Trio with Gossady McGee; they would become the first black group to have a sponsored TV show in the Pacific Northwest.

First R&B hit

That same year, he made his first professional recording in Los Angeles, for the Swingtime label, where he met blues guitarist Lowell Fulson and joined his band for two years as musical director. He registered his first R&B hit in 1951 with “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand” and in deference to the success of Sugar Ray Robinson, he shortened his name.

Atlantic Records purchased his contract from Swingtime Records in 1952 for $2,500. Charles recorded other artists’ material, initially echoing the R&B big-band style of the day, but after performing with Guitar Slim on “Things I Used to Do,” he began to explore a more personal style.

In New Orleans with producer Jerry Wexler, Charles got his first opportunity to write and arrange his own tune, “Don’t You Know,” while using his own band. The song was the first to have one of his trademark jazz-funk riffs, which musicians including Horace Silver, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis noticed and adopted.

In November 1954, having assembled a band that would include longtime associates David “Fathead” Newman and Donald Wilkerson on saxophone, Charles recorded “I Got a Woman” with Wexler at the Georgia Tech radio station.

Big sound

As his popularity grew, Charles was able to upgrade his band, bringing on Hank Crawford to handle the arranging, and making — per Charles’ wishes — seven musicians sound like 15.

In 1956, he added a trio of female singers to his act dubbed the Raeletts; their first appearance on record came on Charles’ version of Doc Pomus’ “Lonely Avenue.” His use of gospel singers in the background would quickly be copied by Elvis Presley, Dinah Washington and others. (His 1956 New York session would also include his first country recording, Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On.”)

His performance at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival demonstrated to jazz elitists that Charles’ band and his music could encompass a number of genres and still be dubbed jazz. A year later, Charles’ set at the fest was recorded for an Atlantic live album. He also made a jazz disc with vibist Milt Jackson and, that same year, clicked with a teen dance crowd with “What’d I Say.”

Impressed with “I’m Movin’ On,” in November 1959, ABC Paramount inked Charles to a three-year contract, allowing him to own his master recordings and set up publishing concern Tangerine.

Atlantic continued to release Charles’ recordings, and “The Genius of Ray Charles” became his first to land on the album sales chart. It reached No. 17.

His first single for ABC Paramount, “Sticks and Stones,” reached No. 40, but followup “Georgia on My Mind,” recorded because his chauffeur sang it constantly, became his second million-seller and his first pop chart-topper.

On the heels of his four Grammy wins for records released in 1960, ABC’s jazz imprint Impulse released his mostly instrumental “Genius + Soul = Jazz” album, which hit No. 4 and yielded the top-10 hit “One Mint Julep.”

Fighting for civil rights

After being sued for refusing to play a segregated dance in Augusta, Ga., in 1962, Charles took an active role in the civil rights movement, providing moral and financial support to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He helped raise money for lawyers, legal research and food for marchers.

In December 1961, less than two months after “Hit the Road Jack” had topped the charts, Charles was arrested in Indianapolis for possession of heroin, a drug he had been using for nine years. He was arrested for possession again at Boston’s Logan Airport in 1964 and given a five-year suspended sentence, probation and a fine.

The next year, Charles’ “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” became his only million-seller upon release, and his version of Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You” became the year’s biggest-selling single. In late 1963, he returned to his big band style with “Busted.”

After a few years of middling hits, Charles returned to the top 20 in early 1966 with the album “Crying Time.” His records failed to reach the top 40 for several years, and he left ABC in 1973, taking with him his Tangerine Records operation and his master recordings.

He created Crossover Records to handle new albums and reissues and won a Grammy for his 1975 cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.” None of the Crossover releases sold well.

Playing for ‘World’

Charles was an integral part of the “We Are the World” benefit single in 1985. But his last appearance in the top 20 came in 1990 when “I’ll Be Good to You,” which he recorded with Chaka Khan for Quincy Jones’ “Back on the Block” album, hit No. 18. It was his first top 30 hit in 13 years.

As his recordings tapered off, Charles appeared in “The Blues Brothers” movie as the owner of a musical instrument store. He would later make guest appearances on the TV shows “Moonlighting,” “Who’s the Boss” and “St. Elsewhere” and in 1990 performed in a popular Pepsi TV ad.

Charles was among the first class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and received a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy, Kennedy Center Honors, and a Rhythm & Blues Foundation Legend Award. The Beverly Hills Lodge of B’nai Brith named him man of the year in 1976.

Charles was married twice and had 11 children, 20 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be held at the FAME Church in central Los Angeles with burial at Inglewood Cemetery in Inglewood, Calif.

(Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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